De KOE was founded in 1989 by Peter Van den Eede and Bas Teeken, students of the Antwerp Conservatoire under the direction of Dora Van der Groen. After working with project subsidies for a couple of years, the company was recognized and subsidized by the ministry of culture of the Flemish Community. Since its conception, de KOE has been described as experimental, epicurean, philosophical, poetical, abstract, recognizable, whimsical, alienating, straightforward and confusing.
De KOE, a speleological investigation into the darkest corners of the human soul. This could be considered the artistic core of de KOE: to make enchantingly genuine theater out of a philosophical perplexity about mankind and the world. To investigate the being of man in all his complexity, forever stuck between love and self-love, between lust for power and sense of duty, between insight and emotion, between clarity and madness. Searching on the stage for the darkest caverns of spirit and heart and soul; and this – if done right – with a mixture of the nimblest poetry, the most haunting humor and the sharpest understanding.
The artistic vision and attitude of de KOE is primarily expressed in an entirely different way of making theater, of looking at things, and in the way in which this image of man and of the world is created and expressed to the spectator.
In text, play, form, content and dramaturgy the notion of ‘communication’ is key. In a world that is dominated by incomprehension, violence, discrimination and intolerance, de KOE remains convinced that theatre is uniquely fit to bring a diverse group of people together and to make them part of a communal experience; at its heart every performance is a micro-society.
The players – makers of de KOE draw their energy from the simple fact of being watched, of being witnessed while they play. The confrontation with the audience, the living, direct, true contact, the experience of the ‘here and now’, makes every de KOE production, every evening into a unique occurrence.
De KOE is a company of players and makers, who keep striving to – even if it seems impossible at heart – let go of all tricks and to appeal to people directly, with themselves exposed as a maker, as an actor, as a person.
De KOE is a way of playing above all else: actors who dismantle things so that at the same time the most exaggerated ánd the most authentic human remains. At his best moments: heartwarming, hilarious and mercilessly cutting into the heart of the matter. And all this caused by the insatiable desire to move and disrupt people, to intoxicate and enlighten, to entertain and to challenge.
De KOE is not a collective of performing artists or repertoire players; it is a collective of creating artists, who play their own texts for the most part. Because of this de KOE is very idiosyncratic. Every performance is carried by the personality of the maker/player. That which Teirlinck defines as art: ‘The disclosure of the image of life that was formed by the emotion of life’; the players/writers of de KOE wish to express this as artists on the stage: to express an image of life from a personal necessity.
An artist is not a scientist. He does not start from a certain worldview that he wishes to communicate, he creates something from which a worldview could be gleaned. That something is ‘the light in which he sees the world and existence. No, not an opinion, not a belief, not a judgment, but a deep-rooted sense of life, that remains largely entrenched in the unconscious.’ (Gerard Reve). And this he stylizes through a story, a piece of music, an artwork. And that story, piece of music or artwork gives shape to the inexorable desire of man to find meaning. The meaning lies in shaping the search for meaning.
De KOE embodies a mentality, a philosophy: how do we engage with each other on stage, why do we act, what are the reasons, and if we talk about political awareness, must this manifest itself in a visible political engagement, by turning a (politically (in)correct) statement into content, or through the angry expression of form, the recalcitrance of the composition. This de KOE explores in each performance, without walking away from the risks. Each performance by de KOE is part of an entire repertoire that remains ‘on its way’, a search for different ways of life.
De KOE wants to continue to make theater in the spirit of Tsjechov: ‘After all life is such, that people do not spend every waking moment shooting each other, hanging themselves or declaring their undying love to each other. They don’t make witty remarks all of the time. They are eating, drinking, flirting, talking nonsense and thóse things should be shown on stage… People are eating, they are simply eating, and as they are doing this, their happiness is being decided, or their total destruction.’ (Tsjechov in a letter to Gorki)
The characters that populate the plays of de KOE are disturbingly recognizable in their desperate attempts to find contact and understanding, to control chaos, emptiness, loneliness, boredom and fear, in their suffering from their shortcomings, their dreams that were never realised; in short, in their suffering from themselves. And yet they continue the search for happiness with a terrifying optimism.
What de KOE has in common with Tsjechov, with Greenaway, with Allen, with Solandz, … is a cheerful pessimism and a razor-sharp analysis of the human soul, and this has been the guiding principle of de KOE from the start: to strip down and expose man, compassionately, though, and with naïve, disarming self-mockery and poetry. The purpose: to purge through recognition.
The players-writers of de KOE bare themselves in the first place and expose themselves to the world. Their characters need to be stripped down to the actor, or the emotion stays stuck at the level of a conventional rendez-vous. With shameless honesty they show man as he really is, in all his beauty ànd his ugliness, as the hero ànd the victim of the story that he makes of himself. We are watchful never to resort to a ‘faux sérieux’, to guard a sense of (self)irony, and to remain surprising and untraceable, because above all else de KOE honors the praise of folly. In the dialogues we stay true to the principle of ‘parler sans accent’, which Schopenhauer discussed. They are a-theatrical and devoid of any dramaturgical psychology. No beautiful writing, no dramaturgically delineated characters, no beautiful acting. To dismantle and disrupt every system in place. That is the assignment.
On the level of dramaturgy, composition and scenography, each performance tries to break radically with the previous one, casting a critical eye on the most persistent laws of theater. This kind of investigative theater remains a risky business. Codes and conventions are snubbed with the purpose of challenging mannerism, of ridding the theater of its pseudo-intellectualism, of breaking through the ‘faux sérieux’ and, in this way, to cause small, intimate consternations, to delude on an emotional level, to ironize and yet to move, to destroy and yet to create. Alienating. Exactly what the theater is supposed to be if it wants to escape its own death: an alienating experience. De KOE is always about breaching a thing that is dangerously deep-seated, a thing which has become traceable through theater history and therefore artificial, holy and classical.
In art history the classical periods never last long. Probably because they confront us mercilessly with our own imperfection. In the experience of balance and order man reaches the epitome of the lie, and the terror of aestheticism reaches its summit. The mythomaniac spell of complex humanity can only be maintained briefly. After that there is the fall, and we have to start all over again. In that sense the theater is the living death struggle of order and peace.
In that sense de KOE has its neverending mission.
Stefaan Van Brabandt en Peter Van den Eede.